Jim Sterne is one of the few elder statesmen of the web analytics world. Author, consultant, founder of the Emetrics summits and co-founder of the Web Analytics Association, Jim has been active in this field for over 25 years; his first book “Customer Service on Internet” was published in 1996.
The importance of having Jim turn his attention to how to measure and optimize social media should not be overlooked. Here’s someone who has charted, chronicled and challenged many of the online developments we now take for granted. Whilst social media has been around a lot longer than we think, the “Social Media” that has got both marketers and CEOs both excited and anxious is still in its infancy. It’s the same social media that has now become headline-making and time-consuming, so that we are forced to say ‘hold on, are we getting anything out of all of this?’. This is where Jim steps in.
What I like immediately about this book (and I like books as my way of digesting information) is that Jim is very clear about what this book is and is not about. Thankfully, it’s not another diatribe about how game-changing social media is and you need to get your hands dirty with this range of tools. This book is about how to measure your investment - and although social media may be free, your time is not - in social media.
Who’s this book for?
In my view, these groups of people will find this book especially useful:
- Organisations and individuals who have made some investments in social media and want to quantify the results they are getting
- Those who remain sceptical about the chaotic nature of social media, but are afraid that they are about to get left behind – and therefore want to bring some structure to their future endeavours.
- Practitioners and consultants who want to help their clients develop a system of measurement that will stand up to scrutiny, and can be discussed sensibly at board level, without hysteria or hyperbole
I get a great deal of comfort from a book of this type that starts off each chapter with a verb. The author has understood that the reader wants to do something, learn a few things, take away a bit more and ultimately take some action. Jim’s favourite verb is “getting” – getting focused, getting attention, getting respect, getting emotional – see what I mean.
Chapter 1 starts as the book goes on – setting your objectives. No investment, social media or otherwise, can be justified unless it meets one of the three big goals, namely:-
- Increase revenue
- Lower costs
- Improve customer satisfaction
The rest of the chapters, read chronologically, form a pattern of a traditional sales funnel. Chapter 2 is concerned with Getting Attention and reaching your audience, most importantly, not just any audience – but your audience. Chapter 3 – looks at how to spread your message through your networks in Getting Respect. Getting Emotional, the next chapter, recognizes that your message is an empty vessel unless we ascribe a sentiment to it. Understanding and classifying sentiment – positive, negative, neutral, sarcastic, humourous, etc. whilst not straightforward is vital in measuring the impact your social media activities are having.
Chapter 5 and Getting Response looks at the question of how you can track back the interactions you having the social media space to some desired outcomes. Getting the Message, in the next chapter, takes a small diversion from the ‘sale funnel’ approach and concentrates on the skills and techniques social media practitioners require for being both a good communicator, and most importantly, a good listener. Chapter 7, Getting Results, ties back your efforts to the overall objectives you set in Chapter 1. Chapter 8 outlines the way in different ways to ‘sell’ social media to the various tribes of doubters and naysayers.
The final chapter looks to the future and what the metathemes of social media might signify for the relationship between buyers and sellers in a networked world.
It ain’t new
Despite the furore and headlines around Twitter, it’s worth remembering that many forms of social media, in relative forms, have long histories. Message boards, review and opinion sites, blogging, bookmarking sites as well as media sharing platforms are well-known and familiar. The phenomenal growth in Twitter usage and Facebook’s rivalling of Google has naturally brought attention to how these newer community tools can be used. Some of this attention is directly from businesses and marketers working out how this form of ‘free marketing’ can be exploited to their benefit.
But a networked view of markets and buyers is not new either. The Cluetrain Manifesto of 1999, with its 95 theses, already understood that ‘markets are conversations’, and that most companies were failing to be involved in those conversations out of ‘obsolete notions of command and control’. From an offline perspective, David Ford and the Industrial Marketing and Purchasing Group, 9 years before Cluetrain, wrote persuasively about a chaotic, non-hierarchical view of industrial relationships. The Internet, and its newer forms, has simply given (?) these type of ‘relationship’ tools to the marketers.
One of the interesting themes that Sterne explores, is that of equivalence in the chapter, Getting Respect – Identifying Influence. Whilst the goal of many retention campaigns is to create ‘raving fans’, Sterne looks at one company’s approach to measuring fans. Baekdal of Baekdal.com defined fans as “one who either follows everything you do, or actively points other people to you – or both”. Based on his web stats, Baekdal was able to calculate that one fan was ‘equivalent’ to 445 regular online visitors. With an average fan having an average of 445 fans themselves, 15 fans commenting on a Facebook page broadcast this message to 6,675 others.
For those who have struggled to monetize ‘engagement’ activity, here was a clear-cut example. If you can put a value on a website visitor, and you can identify the equivalent number of visitors a fan is worth, you can monetize your social media marketing efforts. Added to that, if you can examine the success of fans in recruiting other fans, the ROI of social media just got a whole lot better.
Like every good book on web analytics there is the caveat about data purity, and Sterne makes the necessary right noises about the need for careful expectation setting. Data quality issues in the online space are well-known, and Sterne is right to make the case for correct presentation of the exactitude of the data, rather than sweeping the issue deftly aside.
Visualising and measuring networks
As well as putting a value on a fan, the book talks meaningfully about measuring ‘interconnectedness’ using a variety of tools. Companies like FMS Advanced Systems Group, Axiom, Rapleaf and Unbound Technologies have built tools that allow you to see, in visual form, how the form of these networks change over time and interact with one another. Whilst some tools focus on following ‘conversations’, others look at the linkages, via blogrolls for example, between actors. The goal of all this spidery network visualisation is to identify clusters, trending topics and important actors within your network. This could all be useful intelligence in targeting the right message to a significant group within your network.
Based on Pareto’s law, many of those in your network will be connected, but as Sterne asks, are they ‘respected’? Authority and impact are two measures for assessing the value of individual actors, whilst tools like Peterson’s Twitalyzer focus on generosity, signal velocity, clout and influence. However, like many activities in web analytics, you need to rely on more than one tool. Technorati may be great if many of your prospects and customers are blogging away; Twitalyzer is a powerful tool (and let’s not forget free) for those active on Twitter, but the real value, as well as hard work, will come when you come to aggregate these views into a single system. Until the technology catches up, it would appear you still need to do some pulling together of spreadsheets and Powerpoints for the exec team.
One of the reasons automation has struggled with social media metrics is that of recognizing sentiment. Whilst it is straightforward to capture mentions and retweets of items containing your brand name, what exactly were they saying about you? Think about emotions like sarcasm and irony, and see if you can work out ways for this type of emotions to be correctly classified. Not easy.
Although Sterne outlines frameworks for classifying sentiment – polarity and intensity – the text analysis tools necessary to automate and accurately classify millions of posts, tweets and reviews appears wanting, as Sterne opines
“Perhaps machines can eventually be taught. But who will teach them? Machines have a hard time with this because humans do, too”
Whilst we recognize that listening is just as important as participating in these ‘conversations’ their sheer quantity force us to look towards technology for the answer, when the real difficulty lies in codifying our own language. Layering on top of this semantic challenge is listening to those speaking in other languages, from different cultures and orthogonal perspectives.
One answer might be to look at what people do, rather than what they say – isn’t this after all the difference between market research and testing?
There are many ways to record actions of both prospects and customers, and Sterne has arranged this into a pyramidal “Engagement Food Chain”. The chain (why not a pyramid?) starts with Saw, advancing to Saved and Rated, and ends with Purchased and Recommended. Leaving aside some of the data challenges of identifying individuals, this model works well, particularly if you have an entirely online business model. This sales funnel view of the world makes the assumptions that the more people you have say, Commenting, ceteris paribus, the more you will have at the Purchasing stage. It’s classic stuff, and I am inclined to believe the underlying assumption.
Customer service and crowdsourcing
If you are still having difficulty convincing the Exec team after showing them how many visitors each fan is worth and how your volume of recommendations is positively correlated to your recent boost sales, try the Customer Service pitch. Many organisations have seen quick wins from listening to complaints from customers, and going on to help them out. For those, worried about getting involved in the ‘naked conversation’, using social media to resolve customer issues feels manageable, and can bring some personality. Virgin America, for example, has met those tweeting in-flight about poor service at the landing gate with “customer recovery coupons”. My sense is that, over time, customers will come to expect this type of interaction and woe betide the large corporations who have the wherewithal to do this, but sadly don’t.
One of the most interesting developments of social media is that of crowdsourcing – using the power of the many to develop innovative ideas as to how products and services can be improved. Asking your customer what could be done better, is not terribly new, but the volume of responses that can be garnered and the feedback loop as to what changes have been implemented make this a powerful tool. So when Dell.com gets 2,000 appeals for Linux to be pre-loaded on their laptops and PCs, it can respond, and did within three months of the first request. Measuring the number of ideas submitted, votes on each idea as well as further comments is a great way of understanding the power of your customer community. But of course, this is a big-brand exemplar, and you have to ask yourself: what would you think of Dell if it wasn’t doing something like this?
Return on investment
Overall, though, can we tie back our efforts to meeting business objectives? Jeremiah Owyang thinks so. He cites three critical measures to monitor in order to justify investment in social media:
- Improvement in marketing efficiency (through greater amplification of your message);
- Reduction in support costs (avoiding the costly call centre or a visit to the store);
- Improvement to sales (subject to a robust tracking capability, of course).
With determination and thought, I am certain that most organisations will be able to use these three measures above to compare the investment they are making in social media with business outcomes
Sterne at the beginning of the book promises not to be an evangelist for social media, and for the most part he keeps his word. But at the end of the book, the inevitable crystal ball-gazing chapter, John McKean of the Centre for Information Based Competition points out our central false assumptions. Our current thinking is based on the belief that innovation is occurring within the organisation.
In fact, McKean argues, “..the vast proportion of innovation is happening on the “buy side” of consumer interactions. The “sell” side innovations are progressively less and less.”. Organisations have failed to address their audiences in anything measuring like a success, when fail-to-respond rates are between 95%-98%. Instead of organisations continuing to try and ‘guess’ what the consumer wants, the efficient response is that consumers communicate their needs through a “consumer initiated dance (C2B) of Search, Find (engage) and Negotiate.” Like many codas to technology marketing books, only time will tell, but suffice to say when visits to Google are now being rivalled by those to Facebook, searchability is being replaced by socialability.
Jim Sterne has done an excellent job in pulling together many important strands from the body of, often self-inflated, research and practice of social media. He has stripped out much of the puffery in the debate, and concentrated on the fundamentals. Sterne has constructed a stirring narrative, whilst tying technology, techniques and tools back to their impact on the business. The shape of the book, like an old-fashioned sales funnel, gives us confidence that what has been included is useful and important to business outcomes. He has charted some difficult territory – data quality, sentiment analysis as well as old and the new of social media.
However, there are a few gaps which could have done with plugging. The book title includes the term ‘optimisation’, and for my money, there were few examples of this. I would like to have seen a few case studies where businesses had ‘measured’ their social media efforts, understood that they were sailing off course, and taken corrective action to ‘optimise’ and get better results. By concentrating only on the ‘measurement’ side of the equation, the book feels slightly lopsided.
Secondly, a good number of the examples were B2C and featured the global brands. I know there is some value in featuring case studies from household names with household products, but I fear this is somewhat short-sighted. Many of the people reading this book will be responsible for business-to-business marketing programs, and will want to be inspired by these stories, no matter whether the brand name is global or not. In fact, some small business owners will see social media as an opportunity to compete on a more level playing field with their more well-resourced competitors, and would be interested to hear more about businesses who have taken on the goliaths in their sector.
Finally, I would have liked to see a greater exploration of Owyang’s maturity model. The model presented lacked depth and does not bear comparison with Stephane Hamel’s Web Analytics Maturity Model. Allied with this shortcoming, would have been a more detailed consideration of how to resource social media marketing – what type of people make great community managers, where to find them, how to define their responsibilities, what organisational guidelines should exist for using social media - all of these would have been important questions to answer.
These gaps notwithstanding, Sterne has written an important book about how we will measure social media and evaluate the results of our efforts. It deserves to be on the bookshelf of every serious marketer.